The Wallace Collection

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Armet with visor of exchange c. 1535-40 (A164)
Treasure of the Month - April 2007

Armet with visor of exchange c. 1535-40 (A164)

Richly etched with foliage, flowers, hares, and hounds, this helmet is a testament to the virtuosity of South German master armourers in the early 16th century.

An armet is a very close-fitting helmet worn by knights and men-at-arms¬; fully-armoured warriors who usually fought while mounted on equally well-armoured warhorses. The chin and lower face is enclosed by hinged cheek-pieces, which are locked closed by means of a catch at the chin.

By the 1500s knights had to be prepared to fight in many different ways, and each way of fighting might require different armour and weapons. This armet includes two interchangeable visors, each designed for a specific purpose. One visor, illustrated above and on display above the armet, is made in two parts, a lower face-defence and an upper guard for the eyes and brow. This visor was used for war; it offers good protection from a wide variety of weapons while also allowing reasonable vision and ventilation. The upper part of the visor can also be raised while the lower part remains locked and in place, or alternatively, the whole visor can be raised as a single unit.

For this month only, this armet is displayed with its second tournament visor in place. This is much different, it is made in a single piece, and has many more holes and slots. The wearer’s ability to see and breath are therefore much improved over the other visor, but the protection it can provide is reduced. This second visor may be for the freiturnier, a type of German tournament fought in teams with rebated swords or clubs.

The original owner of this exceptional helmet may have been one Pankraz von Freiburg, a German knight who lived between 1508 and 1565. He would have been twenty-five to thirty years old when the great Lanshut armourer Wolfgang Grosschedel made him the armour to which this helmet belongs. Although we know very little about von Freiburg, his personality comes out very strongly upon close examination of his armet. He certainly must have loved hunting; packs of hunting dogs pursue their prey across the beautiful bands of raised etching that decorate the helmet’s medial ridge. One of the most striking and unusual details is the boarhound collar, complete with fearsome spikes, that is etched to encircle the wearer’s own neck, almost as if the knight himself is a furious hunting dog straining to be let loose.

This helmet is also an exceptionally fine example of German acid-etching. Probably etched by Ambrosius Gemlich, a master of this difficult art, this helmet displays two distinct etching techniques. The first, basic etching, involves the ornamental design being burned into the metal through the selective application of acid, perhaps nitric acid. The second, more advanced technique is usually called ‘raised’ etching. This is a more complicated process in which the background, or intaglio, is etched into the steel rather than the design itself. In this way the design remained proud against a sunken ground. This helmet is a rare example of both techniques being used together, creating an incredibly dramatic effect.

Wolfgang Grosschedel was one of the most famous armourers of his age, his patrons including the Emperor Ferdinand I and King Philip II of Spain. His works exhibit a harmony between their elegancy of form and their complex yet restrained etched decoration.

Further Reading

  • Norman, A.V.B., Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour Supplement (London: The Wallace Collection, 1986), p. 61.
  • Mann, Sir James, Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour (London: The Wallace Collection, 1962), pp. 134-5, pl. 72.